The Eclectic Piano Music of Manuel M. Ponce
"To sum up, your work is what has the most value for me and for all the musicians who hear it..."
- Andres Segovia, in a letter to Ponce (1929)
Manuel Maria Ponce (1882-1948, b. Fresnillo, Zacatecas) is undoubtedly Mexico"s most beloved composer. He was the first to give Mexican music both a national identity and an international stature - he put Mexico on the musical map. Ponce successfully bridged the three worlds of folk, popular and classical music - a rare achievement among composers. The variety of his compositional styles reflects his extended periods of study in Europe as well as his devotion to Mexican music and culture. Although he was a pianist, Ponce became best-known for his numerous guitar works, written for his close friend Andres Segovia. His piano output of over ninety pieces spans his entire career, and includes early salon-style character pieces, neo-Baroque preludes and fugues, nationalistic rhapsodies, and French Impressionist/neo-Classic works.
The Prelude and Fugue on a theme of Handel was written in 1906, the year of Ponce"s first trip to Europe. Determined to improve his already considerable skills as a pianist, Ponce had joined the masterclass of the famed Berlin pedagogue Martin Krause, a former pupil of Liszt. After hearing Krause perform the little-known keyboard suites of Handel, Ponce returned to class the next morning, where, to the astonishment of his classmates, he presented a complete Prelude and Fugue based on the fugal theme of the E Minor Handel Suite. The gentle 12/8 metre of the Prelude, with occasional pauses, creates a leisurely, relaxed mood. Only the closest scrutiny of its melody reveals Ponce"s prodigious craftsmanship; though the pitches have been pried loose from their rhythmic moorings, the melodic contour is quite literally the fugal theme-to-be. While the Fugue owes much to the motoric drive of the Baroque, and to the rhetorical style of Liszt and Busoni. Ponce"s engaging musical personality shines through this formal framework.
For political reasons, Ponce voluntarily exiled himself from Mexico for two years and lived in Havana, Cuba (1915-17). Plenilunio (Full Moon) is one of three pieces that form Ponce"s Suite Cubana, written during his stay there. It is a charming example of a guajira, a Spanish Cuban dance with a characteristic shift from 6/8 to 3/4.
Cuatro Danzas Mexicanas (Four Mexican Dances) go well beyond the musical language of the older generation of Mexican dance composers such as Ricardo Castro (1864-1907) and Felipe Villanueva (1862-1893). In Ponce"s contemporary vision of Mexico, traditional rhythms are dressed in unexpected modulations, quartal harmonies, and poly tonal passages. Evident are the influences of Paul Dukas (Ponce"s teacher in Paris), Prokofiev, and Gershwin.
Intermezzo (1912) is one of the earlier pre-Paris works. It is as expressive and melodious as another work from that year, Ponce"s renowned popular tune Estrellita.
Ponce"s passion for a Mexican nationalistic movement co-existed with his love of older European music. In the early 1910s, Ponce not only produced virtuosic piano works based on Mexican folksongs (Balada Mexicana, Barcarola Mexicana, Rapsodia Mexicana I & II, etc.), he also pursued his study of the Baroque masters. The "theme" of his Introduction, Prelude and Fugue on a Theme of I. s. Bach is taken from Bach"s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One, but it is not one of the fugue subjects. Ponce"s fugal theme is actually from a passing, episodic moment (mm. 17-18) in Bach"s E Major Fugue, a fragment in which Ponce recognized the potential for another entire fugue!
Malgre tout, a dance for the left hand alone, is a beautiful example of Ponce"s use of Habanera rhythm, and the story behind its creation is as touching as the music itself. Ponce wrote this dance to honour his friend and compatriot, the sculptor Jesus Contreras. Contreras lost his right arm in an accident, but nevertheless continued to sculpt. He produced, soon after, a beautiful sculpture, which he titled "Malgre tout," and it stands today in the Alameda Central in Mexico City. The English translation is "In spite of everything."
Ponce"s charming Scherzino Mexicano (1909) is one of the smaller dance- inspired works that demonstrate Ponce"s skill as a "Mexicanista." Many guitarists playa transcription of this piece, but it is originally for piano.
In 1925, eager to immerse himself in French compositional styles, Ponce arrived in Paris to study with Paul Dukas. The Prelude and Fugue for the Left Hand Alone was completed in 1931, the year before he returned to Mexico. Although composed in steady eighth-notes, the Prelude subtly projects the 3? rhythm so characteristic of Spanish dances. Against this rhythmic backdrop, Ponce creates a gentle, mournful lament. The French harmonic influence in this work is especially prominent in the three-voiced Fugue, reminiscent of the richly chromatic style of Cesar Franck"s Prelude, Choral and Fugue. Here, Ponce is intense, sombre, and compelling.
Our best source for identification of Ponce"s imaginatively titled etudes has been Mexican pianist Carlos Vazquez (b. 1920), one of Ponce"s most important students, and a leading exponent of his piano music. Alma en Primavera (Spirit of Springtime) is reminiscent of Liszt"s exploration of the upper registers of the piano in Au Bord d"une Source. While most pianists hone their octave skills on Kullak and Czerny, Ponce"s Juventud (Youth) provides a melodious alternative, and it ends with a bracing flourish of double-octave whole-tone scales.
Notturno is a curious piece-it reflects three different worlds. Its name and its mood of melancholy tenderness clearly pay tribute to Chopin; its gentle 6/8 meter suggests an Italian barcarolle; and finally, the melodic outbursts remind us of the sunny Spain of Isaac Albeniz.
Balada Mexicana (1915) is a real crowd-pleaser. Its two contrasting melodies are actually popular Mexican songs: El Durazno (The Peach) and Acuerdate de mi (Remember Me). While Ponce extends both songs to their virtuosic limits, it is really the second song that undergoes an irreversible metamorphosis, a "Ballade" technique developed by Chopin. Ponce shows his undeniable flair for transforming folk material into a dazzling piano setting.